Chequered Past

22nd June 2021

As we approach the 75th anniversary of F1’s inception, we remember the winner of its first race, Achille Varzi, whose brilliant driving was overshadowed by scandals on and off the track.

 

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Words by Peter Hall

 

It was Italian pre-war great Achille Varzi who won the very first race under the new Formula 1 rules – the Turin Grand Prix of September 1946. But for the 42-year-old, this was not just the dawn of a new era, but a moment of redemption – a triumphant return to form, following a scandalous affair, an addiction to morphine and the long absence from the racetrack caused by World War II.

F1 is 75 years old this year. A world championship for grand prix cars and drivers had been discussed since the 1920s, but it was only after the war that the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) established a set of regulations. Although intended to take effect in 1947, the rules were first applied in the Turin race.

Born on 8 August 1904 to a wealthy Piedmontese family, Varzi raced motorcycles then switched to cars in 1928, driving with Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Maserati and Auto Union. The closest rival to his celebrated compatriot Tazio Nuvolari, he recorded 33 wins in grands prix, the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio.

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A precise and careful driver, he was also formidably determined; in the 1930 Targa Florio, when his Alfa P2 was engulfed in flames, he simply drove on to win while his mechanic beat out the fire with a seat cushion. Yet although Varzi was popular with partisan crowds, he was never a man of the people. Taciturn and aloof, he was also intensely analytical; Enzo Ferrari recalled him quibbling for hours over the seat height of his Alfa until a mechanic raised it by the thickness of a folded newspaper.

His reputation was not enhanced by rumours of corruption at the 1933 Tripoli GP, where the race result was linked to a 15 million lire lottery fund. It was later alleged that Varzi, Nuvolari and others conspired to fix the result (Varzi won by 0.2sec after Nuvolari slowed dramatically on the final lap) but evidence suggests they merely agreed to share their winnings equally.
Varzi’s career took a more dangerous turn in the spring of 1935. Having joined the German Auto Union team he met Ilse Pietsch, the wife of a team-mate, and embarked on a torrid affair, unaware that she was a drug addict.

A year later, Varzi won at Tripoli ahead of team-mate Hans Stuck, who had slowed under orders mandated by the Nazi regime to ensure an Italian victory on Italian soil (as Libya then was). Both drivers were furious, but when the Governor of Libya proposed a toast to Stuck, declaring him the real winner, Varzi was incensed. He couldn’t sleep, and Ilse offered him morphine.

The start of the 1946 Turin Grand Prix, which Varzi won driving an Alfa Romeo 158.

The start of the 1946 Turin Grand Prix, which Varzi won driving an Alfa Romeo 158.

As addiction took hold, Varzi’s world collapsed. Increasingly unreliable and elusive, he lost his place in the team and descended with Ilse into dark obscurity. Alarmed at her malign influence, Mussolini barred Ilse from Italy; in March 1939 Stuck found her in Munich begging for money to buy a forged Italian passport to get back into the country, and a waiter later reported finding her unconscious in the street, wearing a pink nightdress and murmuring Achille’s name. Varzi was more fortunate; once free of Ilse he married an old friend, Norma Colombo, who helped his recovery.

He made a remarkable post-war comeback at that first F1 race in 1946, driving an Alfa Romeo 158 and beating Alfa team-mate and former French Resistance fighter Jean-Pierre Wimille by half a second after 60 laps (174 miles) of Turin’s Valentino Park circuit. He went on to win three more GPs in 1947 and also raced successfully in Argentina.

However, his luck ran out on 1 July 1948, while practising for the Swiss GP at Bremgarten. In only the second accident of his career, his Alfa skidded on a damp track and overturned, killing him instantly.

For all his victories, success on the track was not Varzi’s only legacy. In Argentina he had befriended Juan Manuel Fangio, and persuaded him to race in Europe. Fangio would win five F1 world championships, but never forgot his mentor: “Varzi was to me a god… he is probably the driver I have most admired in my life, a man who cared only for his art.”

 

This article was taken from the Spring 2021 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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